Boris Johnson’s premiership could be an ‘opportunity for disaster’, warns ex-civil service chief

Lord Kerslake says Britain is also facing most ‘perilous’ state than at any point in his long career

Ashley Cowburn
Political Correspondent
Wednesday 26 June 2019 07:59 BST
Boris Johnson pledges Brexit on 31st October in BBC interview

A Boris Johnson premiership would be an “opportunity for disaster” with Britain facing its most “perilous” state for decades over Brexit, the former head of the civil service has warned.

Lord Kerslake delivered the scathing verdict as he claimed the Conservative leadership frontrunner’s promise to take Britain out of the EU by Halloween with or without a deal “is a complete hostage to fortune”.

By tying himself so emphatically to delivering Brexit by the 31 October, Lord Kerslake said Mr Johnson had put himself in the position of an escapologist who had put on a “straitjacket, padlocked the door and started the tap running”.

The former mandarin added that Brexit had “completely paralysed” both Westminster and Whitehall, causing one of the most fractious periods in recent memory and Britain facing its most “perilous” state than at any point in his long career.

The remarks came as Mr Johnson kicked off a media blitz on Tuesday and categorically ruled out a further extension to the Brexit process beyond the Halloween deadline, insisting: “Do or die, come what may.”

The ex-foreign secretary said that tweaks to Theresa May‘s deal would not be enough, and claimed his government would deliver a “new withdrawal agreement” – despite the EU repeatedly saying there will be no renegotiation.

Delivering the Chamberlain lecture on Tuesday, Lord Kerslake, said Ms May’s political career was effectively ended by Brexit, and the person most likely to succeed her on 23 May was Mr Johnson.

“Boris has placed at the very centre of his campaign the commitment that we will leave the EU on 31 October, deal or no deal. This a complete hostage to fortune,” he said.

“At the same parliament has been clear, rightly in my view, that it will not countenance leaving the EU without a deal. It is always a good maxim in politics not to enter a room unless you know that you can get out of it,” the former civil service chief added.

“Boris Johnson has not only entered the room but he has put on the straitjacket, padlocked the door and started the tap running.”

Lord Kerslake, who worked alongside Mr Johnson on housing policy while he was mayor of London, added: “I don’t recall him having read any of the papers that I produced but he picked up these issues quickly and was good to work with.

“My strongest memory of Boris though was something he said in jest after one of his self-inflicted mishaps. He said: ‘Just remember out of every disaster comes an opportunity.’

“He then paused and said: ‘Or in my case an opportunity for another disaster.’ Boris as PM may just be another opportunity for disaster.”

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Beyond the “daily psychodrama” of Brexit and the Tory leadership contest, Lord Kerslake also warned that the UK is facing a “decade of disruption” with globalisation, demographic changes, technological change and climate change.

He said “deep-rooted” issues will hinder the ability of Britain to respond to these four “disrupters” including structural weaknesses in the economy and regional inequality.

Speaking at the BT Tower in central London, Lord Kerslake also called for constitutional reform of the UK’s voting system, blaming first-past-the-post for encouraging a “tribal approach to politics”.

While arguing for the “undoubted need” for the House of Lords – of which he has been a member for four years – he pleaded for a decision to made on whether peers should be elected, appointed “or even a mix of the two”.

“We can then set about making the fundamental changes that are needed,” he said. “For me, the example of other European countries in having a second chamber made up of representatives drawn from the regions is a powerful one.

“And perhaps we could take the opportunity of the restoration of the House of Parliament and move it out of London.”

Concluding his speech, Lord Kerslake added that he is “no doubt this country is currently in a deep crisis”, adding: “Fundamental change is needed.

“The country is indeed in a perilous place. We need radical change to have any chance of responding to the big disruptive forces we face over the next decade. To make our economy fairer, more productive and more balanced, and to have a constitution that is fit for purpose.

“My main concern for our next government, Labour, Conservative or coalition, is not that it will be too radical but that it will not be radical enough.”

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